Interview: Bernice Chauly, on ‘The Book of Sins’

An edited, shorter version of this interview was first published on 31 August, 2008 in The Star


bernice 2By DAPHNE LEE

SOME of her poems make me feel uncomfortable,’ said a friend of mine to whom I’d given Bernice Chauly’s poetry collection, Book of Sins.

She didn’t mean that the poems were bad, simply that she felt that they revealed things about her – secret, painful things that she never thought any one else would share let alone understand.

Chauly’s poems are deeply personal. They may or may not be autobiographical in detail, but the stories they tell feel like they were shaped by real, not simply imagined emotions, and of course memories. They are Chauly’s emotions, memories and stories, but they also speak to and for women the world over. They are familiar tales, but, filtered through the voice of an individual, they defy the cliches of everyday experience and become significant, compelling and unique.

This is Chauly’s second collection of poems. Her first, going there and coming back, appeared in 1997. More than a decade between books isn’t surprising when you consider what a full and busy life Chauly leads. She juggles motherhood, teaching (at the School of Performance and Media in Sunway University College), writing, organising spoken word events and the occasional acting gig. No wonder she often looks tense and tired.

Chauly supports her life’s passions (creative writing, photography and her two daughters) by taking on more practical assignments. Although romantic, she’s too smart and too responsible and loving a parent to consider going the route of the tortured, starving artist. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t suffer for her art. In fact, as a woman and a mother, I found many of her poems painfully touching. I can only imagine what she must have felt writing them.

She confirms that ‘Some were easier to write than others …. It’s cathartic most of the time, a release of many sorts and levels. It’s like ‘Ok, I’ve written about it, now its done, I’ve let it go, I can move on’.

Of course, Chauly is not the first writer whose work is in some way a result of conflict. Many of the world’s finest artists led turbulent lives or lived during turbulent times. Chauly talks about Aristotle’s Poetics, which ‘discusses tragedy as one of the fundamental cores of poetry.’ She says, ‘Artists are inspired by their own conflicts and tragedies – whether it rages within the depths of their hearts or whether it rages on the streets. Conflict creates drama, if there is no conflict, there is no drama, no story.’

What was your introduction to poetry? Can you remember the first poem your read which made an impression on you?
It was Walter de la Mare’s Someone Came Knocking. I was nine. I had to memorise it for an elocution contest, which I later won. I was very involved in elocution after that, way into my secondary years and was very involved in competitions.

How about the first poem you wrote?
It was inspired by Edith Sitwell, called Beelzebub. I was 17. It was a pretty dark poem.

When did you think ‘This is what I want to do, this is my medium?’
It was when I was in at the University of Winnipeg, Canada. The sheer inhospitableness of the climate, the vastness of the landscape, the desolation and alienation of being in a country so different from mine propelled me to express myself. I threw myself into the arts; went to readings by poets and authors, discovered the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, dance, rock concerts, folk music, theatre – basically everything and anything I could afford. I was studying English Lit and Education, creative writing being one of my courses. I started meeting other writers and so it began. Writing became something I did, mostly at night. In the solace of my apartment, I started writing. Some nights, the poems would just come, fast and furious. Sometimes, it would begin as a line, an image, or a memory from a dream and I would have to work at it to get it out. To me, poetry is the language of prayer and spell, it is the language of the inter-mediate world. It is a language that is spoken between humans and the Divine. It is the way I have chosen to try to define and understand my place in this world. It is the most intangible of literary forms, yet the most beautiful. It is the language of the soul.

Tell us about The Book of Sins and how you came to write the poems in it.
This collection was years in the making. It was after the birth of my first child when I started writing poetry again. The first collection, going there and coming back was published in 1997 by a press I co-founded, and my daughter was already a year old. But that series of work started in Winnipeg and ended with the birth of my first daughter. So, it was time to start a new series of poems. My work is very personal and I draw upon my life as the impulse to write. I have written in many forms, but poetry is my voice, the personal, the secret voice. This collection came to an end after my mother’s death last year. She had cancer and the illness was a pivotal moment in our mother-daughter relationship, that’s why the poems are in a section called forgiveness. Whatever happened between us was done, it was all, all forgiven.

Do you depend on an audience? How important is it to you that your poems are read and understood and enjoyed?
If I said yes to the question I wouldn’t write at all. I am not dismissing the role of the audience or the person who picks up the book and buys it – I write because I want to. I have to. I also write because I want to be understood, most artists do. A lot of women have told me that they have found the work moving. The issues I write about – love, heartbreak, divorce, motherhood, spirituality, death – are universal issues. I’ve received emails and talked to people, some who wept aloud while reading them, so I assume they can relate to it. That means a lot to me, that somebody out there understands. I believe that one has to be honest as a poet, it’s a journey to finding truths about oneself.

How do you feel when readers have their own ideas about what your poetry means? How possessive are you over your poems?
Any kind of writing is open to interpretation, all writers know that. To begin with, poetry is a very difficult medium to work with. There has to be a certain craft, a mastery that poets cultivate over time, a style that one arrives at. The ‘possessiveness’ is inherent because every poet has a certainty, a largesse and tone that is theirs and theirs alone. You can’t compare Dickinson and Plath, it’s impossible because the language is so different. Its use is different, but purpose, the same. The imagery, alliteration, symbolism is so starkly different, as is the rhyming styles, stanzas and structures. Poets have to possess a style that they can call their own.

What do you think of the work done by Malaysia’s emerging poets? 
It’s exciting that we have so many young poets at the moment. Poetry has so many different forms now – spoken word, performance poetry and poetry on the page (which adheres to the classic form in its contemporary manner), so it’s really up to the individual poet to create a kind of work that is representative of who he/she is. It’s harder being a poet now as there is so much work (fiction and/or non-fiction) that is more accessible and immediate than before and people’s attention spans are probably shorter than ever. It’s not easy writing poetry, yes, there are rules that one has to adhere to, but knowing the rules doesn’t mean you can automatically write poetry. However, that also does not mean that we stop writing what we do, it’s more critical than ever. And I am glad to note that young writers are choosing to write in this form. We need more poets, now more than ever.

book-of-sinsDo you enjoy doing readings? Do you find that it’s one way of connecting more effectively with readers? What’s your experience been of reading your poetry?
My experience in elocution during my school years trained me to speak in public. I love reading in public, I love the way an audience is moved by words. It’s a powerful experience, cathartic. I try to read as well as I can. It’s important really.

Are you influenced by anyone you read? Who? And how?
So many great, great poets. Anna Akhmatova, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Chairil Anwar, Maxine Kumin, Borges, Neruda, Anne Micheals, Louise Gluck, Rimbaud, William Blake, H.D, Emily Dickinson. All powerful and mighty in their craft. I believe good poems are the best teachers. Poets were powerful in their time; they were personal, yet political. I do believe the role of the poet is more critical than ever.

You have a poem in Book of Sins about the aftermath of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, in particular the possible scenario of her children finding her body. What led you to write this poem?
Many poets (or writers and artists for that matter) committed suicide, it’s a common fact.

I think it’s something that is part of the creative process. It is not easy being an artist, being put on the stand and being criticised, but as such, that is the process of creation. Once you become an artist, you expose yourself to the world and the world will ultimately have something to say about it.

As creative beings we have to live with our demons and wrestle with them. We can choose to recognise the demons as angels, and the battle continues, the path can be one of healing, or one of self-destruction.

Plath was iconic for so many female poets, but she chose to end her life, even as a mother. It is something that I think everyone thinks about but something I will never act upon. Being a mother robs you of certain options and suicide is one. I am a single parent, I have two beautiful daughters, and my life has changed in ways I never thought possible.

Being a mother does not mean you stop creating. Yes, I do wish I had more time to write, to create, but at the same time, my life has been enriched. I would not be who I am now, without them and the experience of motherhood. I interviewed Sophia Vari, the wife of the great artist Fernando Botero and she said, ‘As mothers and as artists, we wait, we have to wait until the time is right, and then we will know when it is time (to create)’. I also believe that if you are a writer, you will find a way to get those words out, regardless.

As a mother myself I identified most with the poems about your children and about motherhood. I opened the book randomly on Tasnem Rain and expected it to come under the heading ‘Guilt’. Is that ever an emotion that results in poetry for you?

The concept of sin I dealt with in the book is loosely structured around Catholicism, symbolic of my childhood and relationship with my mother.  They deal with concepts of morality. Now, I feel guilty when I don’t write enough and when I don’t spend enough time with my kids. My loyalty is to my craft and my kids. It’s extremely difficult finding the time to do both. All I can do is try.

Do you write every day? Describe your creative process.
I have to write everyday as I now work on extensive book projects. These pay the bills. The creative writing is what I want to do full-time, but that seems unrealistic at the moment. I am currently writing an autobiographical prose piece that started out as a one-woman play and I hope it will become a piece that will either be staged or published. It could also be a novel, its hard to say at this point. The writing process is contemplative, sometimes violent, sometimes gentle, sometimes frustrating and sometimes just an outpouring of grief. Most of the time, I write in the dead of night, when the children are asleep.

What do you think is the single most important thing needed to nurture creative writers and thinkers?
Reading and self-discipline.

What is your opinion of Malaysian writers working in English? Please comment on the opinion that they suffer from the fact that it is a language in which they are unable to express themselves convincingly?
We have some very good writers at the moment. Preeta Samarasan (Evening is the Whole Day) is a great example of how Malaysian writers are making their mark in the literary world. We are out of this post-colonial bind and with the present generation of writers, there is a renewed confidence in the word. Malaysians are unfortunately, not very well read as a whole. It has to begin at home and followed-through in the schools. We need teachers who can teach language and literature and this applies to both Malay and English literatures.

We need serious changes in our curriculums to address the dearth of literature in our schools. Sastera Melayu and English Literature are more crucial subjects than ever, if our students do not read significant texts when they are students, they will not read it when they are adults. I was lucky, my parents were voracious readers and teachers as well as accomplished writers in their own right. Too much emphasis has been placed on the Sciences and Language has suffered drastically. We need to re-introduce this in very focused strategies to produce better writers in English and Malay. It is unfortunate that language is so politicised in this country, we need to move beyond it and allow for expression and creativity. The schism of writing in Malay or English is very real. As an educator and a lecturer who teaches writing at a college level, I am confronted with a lot of these issues.

The backcover blurb of The Book of Sins describes you as a writer, photographer, actor and teacher? How do you manage to juggle so many things? Why don’t you choose just one thing to concentrate on? If you had to which would it be?
My life is governed by economics and time. As a single parent I have to make work choices that benefit my children and myself. I would like to just write and teach, but I love the process of creating visual pieces as well. Photography is a physical process, but yet it is silent, wordless. I still work with film and I love the darkroom process. It’s a different challenge, a different technique. The acting work is selective and I do like a good role. I don’t make films or direct anymore, it takes too much time away from my children. For me I see that all these forms are connected. There is no rule that states that you have to only work in one form, one medium. It’s a choice that only the artist can make. I look back at my work and can see themes and issues that are related. We have to explore forms and mediums that are available to us and then decide. Not every artist has the same temperament.

What is the highest compliment a reader of poetry could pay you?

‘That’s a good line.’

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